Trailblazer: Don Douglass and Alpenlite
As a graduate student in business economics at California’s Claremont Graduate University in 1970, Don Douglass’ thesis analyzed REI’s mail-order business model. In his analysis, he found two things that intrigued him: “First, was the fact that their largest base of customers was in Southern California,’’ he said. “Second, was the fact that people who bought from REI would prefer to try on gear, especially packs and boots before buying it.”
With his findings and MBA in hand, Douglass raised the capital to start Wilderness Group Inc. (WGI) in 1970, and then opened The Backpackers Shop in Claremont, Calif. Later, he opened two more Southern California stores, one in Santa Ana and one in Pasadena.
Apart from retail, WGI started a pack company called Alpenlite. “Dick Kelty couldn’t open more dealers because he couldn’t build packs fast enough,” Douglass recalled. “So I said, ‘Hell, we can build a great pack,’ and we did.”
Around the same time, the first urethane-coated nylon fabric came onto the market and Alpenlite ended up using it in all its pack bags. But it wasn’t the waterproofness that made Alpenlite backpacks famous. It was the hip belts. “We used big, padded waist belts, and the company slogan was: ‘Let your hips shoulder your load.’ “
Alpenlite packs were hot sellers in the ‘70s. At one point, kit maker Frostline alone was selling thousands of Alpenlite backpacks in kit form, and Sierra Designs created a special pack bag for the Alpenlite pack frames it sold at its retail shops.
With the retail and the manufacturing businesses humming along, Douglass announced to his partners that if sales reached $1 million, he and his wife, Reanne, would take a leave of absence and sail around the world. The partners chuckled, but within two years of starting WGI, sales hit the $1 million mark, the couple purchased a 42-foot sailboat, and they were off.
Their voyage started well, but 800 miles west-northwest of Cape Horn, the boat was overturned by a giant wave. When nothing was heard from the couple, they were presumed dead. But 42 days later, they arrived on the southern coast of Chile, both they and their boat badly battered.
Despite the harrowing experience, their voyage was aborted not so much because of the sailing conditions but because Douglass had to come back to take over WGI, which was struggling under a temporary CEO’s leadership. “I came back and immediately got the company (now all of it officially under the Alpenlite name) into book bags, which were a huge hit for us, and then into bicycle touring bags under the Kangaroo label.”
Not one to stand still, Douglass loved any new challenge and started exploring other endeavors. While Alpenlite moved along, the Douglasses decided to write a book about their fateful sailing journey, each offering an individual point of view. Rather than bow to publisher pressure for a macho-driven tale, the couple formed their own publishing company and printed “Cape Horn: One Man’s Dream, One Woman’s Nightmare.”
During this time, Douglass also developed an interest in mountain biking, purchasing one of the first multi-geared mountain bikes from mountain bike pioneer manufacturer Tom Ritchey. Next thing you know, Douglass is riding all over the mountains, becomes an advocate for more mountain bike trails, and is the brains behind the most famous mountain bike downhill race in the United States — the Kamikaze at the Mammoth Mountain ski area in Southern California. For all his efforts on behalf of mountain biking, Douglass is among the first inductees into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame as one of the sport’s founding fathers.
Busy and interested in so many diverse outdoor recreation opportunities and with a growing publishing business, Douglass retired from the outdoor business in the mid-1980s. He and Reanne then moved to the Sierra where he set the still-standing record for running the Muir Trail from Whitney Portal to the Yosemite Valley in an elapsed time of 118 hours. That feat led to Douglass designing and making ultralight gear.
Eventually, the Douglasses were drawn back to the sea. These days, they live in Anacortes on Fidalgo Island near Washington State’s San Juan Islands. Their first book led to many more about sailing and places to anchor a boat, such as "Exploring the Gulf of Alaska." Here is their fascinating website: www.insidepassagenews.com
And if that’s not enough, they’ve established The Friends of The Inland Passage, a non- profit dedicated to ensuring public access to the waters of the Pacific Northwest.
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